An Interpretive "Crux" in "My Kinsman, Major Molineux"
(click here if you'd like to read or reread the story first)
When medieval scribes made mistakes copying, or when they encountered what appeared to be such a mistake in the text they copied from, they often marked the line with a cross (Latin, "crux") to indicate their indecision about what it means. Modern literary analysts have borrowed that term for places in a work where they have trouble deciding what the author means. In student work, such "cruces" (plural) could be produced accidentally, but in the work of a professional, they usually should be products of the author's intentions. In the case of "My Kinsman, Major Molineux," Robin's choice (to laugh/not to laugh) could be seen as a potential "binary opposition" whose outcome must be interpreted correctly to understand the point of this story. "Binary oppositions" are concepts we borrow from Structural Anthropology and Linguistics to describe the way texts' deep structures are built out of states of action or being which are so strongly opposed to each other that something in one state cannot be in the other. To begin, we have to drop back and look at the "macrostructure" of the story's plot to recall what choices Hawthorne has set up for us as we read.
What does Robin seek? A job, certainly, but more profoundly he seeks to become a man rather than "a shrewd youth." The story's narrator typically uses the terms "man" and "youth" as binary oppositions to distinguish Robin from what he is not. Robin's "kinsman" has promised to provide the job, and implicitly Robin assumes this will elevate him to male maturity. Robin's serial tests of the townspeople and their testing of him often raise questions of class (his poverty, their relative riches), but also running through it are questions about his maturity of judgment. Look at the times when his youth is mentioned in the context of others' reaction to him (esp. Ms. Scarlet Petticoat!). What is male maturity in this town, and what do you have to do in order to earn it? What do you make of the association between Robin's laughter and his acceptance into the town's society? Is laughter typically an adult trait or a childish trait? If the latter, by early C19 conventions, then the sad, silent, enduring Major might be the one whose behavior Robin should choose to imitate rather than laughing with the rowdy mob. Or is Hawthorne asking his readers to reconsider laughter as something sometimes necessary for adults, too, and not a simply signifier of an absolute state like "childhood"? If you can develop coherent answers to one or more of these questions based on solid evidence in the story, you should have a good paper.
Beyond such abstract notions, one might also see lurking the historically based speculation, which Hawthorne is known to have pursued in his novels, about what it would have been like to experience the early convulsions of this country's culture without the pious, patriotic haze of glory obscuring our vision. What were America's revolutionary "ancestors" really like as one might meet them on the street? As a thought experiment, imagine the Major was not a colonial official but the Mayor of Baltimore. What does the crowd around him look like now? What would it take to get you to laugh at such a sight?
Then there's the whole question of what Robin's laughter really means about what's going on in his mind. Laughter isn't "intended" like a statement. It's more like a sneeze. In this instance, Robin's laughter at his "kinsman" may constitute a dawning awareness of something, or even many things, that completely unbalance his understanding of his world. How many things get rearranged in Robin's mind at the moment the moonlight reveals "my kinsman, Major Molineaux"'s face? Does his laughter mean the same thing as the crowd's?
Remember that interpretive cruces are generally supercharged with the potential to mean, and fully unpacking their meanings may involve admitting several kinds of answers. However, reasonable literary analysts will negotiate with others of their kind to seek the most probable solution to these questions, one that acknowledges the most relevant evidence, rather than arguing for solutions which require us to violate basic linguistic rules, to ignore significant evidence to the contrary, to violate the rules of the genre in which the cruces occur, or to do anything else that results in an incoherent explanation. The author may have been a complex thinker, but he would not be likely to wish us to bend the tale into a mere chaos of irreconcilable meanings. Also remember that this site in the text is but one of many which may yield interpretive insights, some of which you may be the first to discover. Read curiously.